By BEN GRAFTON
At the Freeport Special Council meeting of Jan. 6, Mayor Russ Barley opened the meeting by stating that the its purpose was to identify possible means of providing additional funds to keep the fire department operating without change for the balance of this year and to get input to develop a plan to provide adequate funding to cover department costs in the 2014/2015 fiscal year. He said, “When we did the budget we had a total of $354,000 for the fire department. It takes more than that and we need additional monies. We need to decide how to come up with this money, not only for this year, but for the years to come.” The only present option for the 2013/2014 budget year is to cover needs by transferring funds to the fire department from other departments. One option to provide additional funds for the 2014/2015 fiscal year and other future years would be to increase the ad valorem tax rate. He reemphasized that this meeting is just a discussion and nothing could be decided that night.
Barley continued by saying that Councilwoman Janice McLean, who is the Council member over the fire department, has been trying to develop alternate ideas to deal with this funding problem.
According to McLean, based on Fire Department expenditures during the first three months of the fiscal year, average payments run about $46,000 per month. (Several other people pointed out that this calculated average includes non-recurring expenses, so it may be on the high side.) Using this calculated average, the department will spend $550,000 in this budget year which ends in September 2014. She added that this works out to be $647 per household in the city and that this amount of money is equivalent to 69 percent of Freeport’s ad valorem revenue. So, the city has to decide whether it is going to take it out of ad valorem taxes or out of available funds in the budgets of other departments.
McLean said the department needs to reduce overtime pay and she has been looking at one proposal in which on Monday through Friday there would be three daily eight-hour shifts with two firefighters on each shift. Then on the weekend there would be two firefighters on 24-hour shifts. She said, “I called the Fire Chief and asked if he would like to go over the work schedules with her and he said, ‘no.'” She would be glad to hear other proposals.
Councilman Ray Jackson said he has been looking at possible schedules to reduce overtime payments but he doesn’t see how it can be done.
Resident Russell Beaty spoke to the Council saying that the budget proposed by Chief Harrell is a, “…bare bones…” budget. He noted that there are a lot of commercial fund sources available to the city and also that only two firefighters actually live in the city. He said, “The city needs a good fire department for business growth. As things stand, commercial insurance rates will be very high. Department funding must allow for covering firefighters out sick, and on vacation.” Resident Ronnie Brannon challenged the idea that new businesses on U.S. 331 would solve the financial problem. He said, “How long has the [four lane] bypass been out there? It’s my present opinion if you keep putting tax on business and you think business is going to pay for all this impact, they are not going to do it. …we’ve had our backs loaded. … you’ve got impact fees, you have fire assessment type fees and now you are talking about putting something else on it. You’re not going to get anything.”
Brannon asked, “… the city has received an offer from the county. Why are we sitting here arguing on it? A half a million dollars that you could spend on the … parks and all. I can remember when there were no parks. Now we have boat ramps and parks and it’s the best thing that ever happened to Freeport.
“The county made a good offer to Freeport about taking over the fire department, so why not give the fire department over to the county? The maintenance of the city’s parks is important. The parks generate a lot of happiness.”
Beaty countered that if Walton County takes over the operation of the fire department, insurance rates will go up and the citizens of Freeport will be charged $75 per house for county fire protection services. Walton County can raise the fire protection fee to $150 without having to ask for permission.
Councilman Ray Jackson proposed getting the meeting back to funding the department for this year. Later the Council can figure out how to fund the department for next year. He said, “We presently have money in Parks and Roads to fund the fire department for the rest of this year without cutting the salary of a firefighter or laying anybody off. ”
City Clerk Robin Haynes reported that the city is still doing maintenance on all fire hydrants. Jackson commented that a letter was sent to the county in October asking them to take over fire hydrant maintenance outside of the city. McLean agreed adding that the letter asked the county to provide $75 each for maintenance of hydrants outside of the city. A reply to this letter reportedly has never been received.
Fire Chief Chad Harrell reported that no grant money has been received for the fire department. However, the application for the grant is still active and there is a chance that grant money will be received at some later date. Harrell also said that Emergency Medical Service is a county not a city function.
From the floor, the question was raised about whether it was less costly to the residents to let the ISO rate go up or to raise ad valorem taxes?
Fire Captain Tom Palmer suggested the use of a sales tax to fund the fire department. In reply, Jackson said that a Freeport sales tax would push the total sales tax up to 8 percent and that would stop business interest in Freeport.
Harrell reported that the city has been trying to sell the new fire truck which is hardly ever used. The asking price is $420,000 but no offers have been received. He will reduce the asking price to whatever price the city wants. It is his intention to replace the new truck with a one better suited for this area. This unit would probably cost about $350,000….
Read the full story in the January 16, 2014 edition of the Herald Breeze.
By BEN GRAFTON